By: Margaret Corona
I had the opportunity to speak with Fred Tackett — a guitarist and vocalist in Little Feat — over the phone on Saturday, following the opening night of their “Fall Albums” tour in Nashville. We spoke about night one of their tour, Tackett’s early years as a musician and other interesting behind-the-scenes details from his life!
Margaret Corona (MC): I just want to say I am absolutely geeking out. I am so honored to be speaking to you. So this is truly a huge treat. Let’s start with your opening show last night at the Ryman Auditorium. How did it feel to kick off the tour in such a historical location you’ve played many times before?
Fred Tackett (FT): Oh, it’s always great to be at the Ryman. They call it “the church” [laughter]. Stained glass windows all around. And it was just really, really a great show. We had some great guests. We had Shaun Murphy, who used to be in the band and is no longer in the band, but she came and guested with us and just threw down and it was great. We loved seeing her again. And so it was a great show.
MC: That’s great. So you’re playing night two in Nashville tonight. Tell me a little bit about how you spend your time the day of a show.
FT: Well, these shows — the one in Nashville, here — are kind of different because we have a bunch of guests coming in. So we will go over to the theater, you know, at 3:00 to Ryman and different people who are coming in to play with us — we’ll go through some of the songs that they’re going to sing and anything that we need to go over and refresh our memories on [laughter]. And then we eat dinner and we meet some VIP guests, you know, who come and get their picture taken and hang out with us for a few minutes, and then we do the show [laughter].
MC: That’s awesome. Sounds like a pretty nice day.
MC: So you joked in a previous interview that “Music’s free, but you charge for the travel.” What would you say a day in the life looks like for you when you and the band are traveling to the next city?
FT: After the show tonight, we will get on our bus. It’s a very nice bus, has bunk beds and television sets all over the place and Internet, which never works [laughter]. We’ll get on that bus after the show and then we’ll drive all night, sleep in our little bunks if we can, depending on how bumpy the road is, and drive until we get to the next place, and then we show up at something like six or seven in the morning, you know? We come walking in when everybody else is getting up and eating breakfast. We’ll come walking into the hotel and get our rooms and then we’ll sleep ’til like, you know, noon or something. And then get back on the bus at three and go to the gig and do the very same thing again — have a little soundcheck and eat dinner and then play the show and then get back on the bus and drive all night to the next show. This tour is nice because we’re playing two nights in all these major cities. We’re playing two nights here at the Ryman, two nights in Washington, D.C., two nights in Boston, two nights in New York City. So, you know, it cuts the bus travel down in half [laughter] which is great.
MC: Oh, totally… Okay. So kind of segueing off what you were saying about the two-night shows, the setlists from your spring tour “Boogie Your Spring Away” were obviously like a grab-bag mix of your classics going deep into the catalog, but how are you feeling about instead playing two of your most famous records all the way through for the fall tour versus keeping the track selections more random?
FT: Well, you know, like a year or so ago, we did the “Waiting for Columbus” album from start to finish, and that was a two-record set, so it took up the whole length of our show to play that. But right now, we’re doing “Sailin’ Shoes” one night, and then the next night that we play we do “Dixie Chicken.” And both of those records were just one record, you know? And so it’s about 45 minutes of music. So, that leaves us more time so we get to do the deep dive into the catalog as well as playing. So we’ll play the show first and then we’ll say, “Okay, that’s the end of ‘Sailin’ Shoes!’” [laughter] and then we’ll go into “Fat Man in the Bathtub” or something else and do whatever we want for the rest of the show. So we kind of get the best of both worlds on this tour.
MC: Totally. Yeah. That’s a great way of looking at it. So, I understand tonight is the debut of the “Dixie Chicken” record for this particular tour, so maybe only time will tell for this answer, but if you could make a prediction, how do you think nights one and two of each city will differentiate themselves both to the band mates and to the fans?
FT: Well, you know, the songs are different, but otherwise, I mean, every night is different [laughter]. I think how we play is very improvisatory, you know? So, each night we’ll play the same songs, but every time we play the songs they’re different. It’s going to be an adventure every night.
MC: Oh, absolutely. And a fun one, indeed. So getting more into your history — if my research and mental math is correct, you became a session player at 20 years old, which is truly incredible. So where did your love for music all begin?
FT: Well, my father and my brother both were trumpet players, so I started out playing the trumpet when I was 5, and then when Elvis Presley came along, around the time I was 12, I said, “I got to get a guitar” [laughter] and I got a guitar. I was a huge Elvis Presley fan. And, you know, it just went from there. I started little rock and roll bands in junior high school and high school, you know, went off to college, and ended up in Los Angeles, and the rest is history.
MC: Yeah. And so you were in the band — it’s called the “Eyebrows,” correct?
FT: The “High Brows.”
MC: The “High Brows”! Oh, okay.
FT: I was playing in a six-night-a-week job in Oklahoma City, going to Oklahoma City University. And those kinds of jobs don’t exist anymore. But it was like, you know, I was going to college, but my real college education was playing this six-night-a-week gig. We were backing up like, grade-c floor show acts and maybe been on the “Johnny Carson” show like one time, you know? And they would come through Oklahoma, and this club, and play a two-week thing with us, and it was really good ’cause they all had these big Las Vegas-like show arrangements, you know, Judy Garland medleys and stuff. So it [laughter] really was a great experience learning, you know, how to play on the spot, all kinds of different stuff. And so we played like four sets a night and you just don’t have those jobs anymore. Now you go play somewhere and you get to play one night in this club and then you go play one night over at that club. This was like two years of six nights a week in the same clubs and, you know, same everybody, you know [laughter], same cocktail waitresses, same band. So it was a really great experience that no longer exists for young musicians.
MC: Yeah, that’s true. Versus being able to have the constant place of returning to each night.
FT: Yeah. I mean, used to be every Holiday Inn had a band, you know?
MC: Oh, okay.
FT: Yeah, like every Holiday Inn had a club with a band in it five nights a week which we don’t see anymore. It used to be like a joke of a Holiday Inn band, you know — was considered kind of an amateur band, you know, ’cause everybody — every Holiday Inn — had one, and now they’ve all disappeared, too.
MC: Do you have a preference over touring to more cities more frequently versus kind of hunkering down at one particular venue?
FT: Oh, it’d be great if you, you know — we always joke about it, if we could have holograms and if we could just stay in Los Angeles and go to a place and, you know, play every day. And they would sort of send that off to [laughter] Boston, or wherever, and we wouldn’t have to actually travel to get there. But right now we have to travel. So, yeah, being home is great, you know, you get to come home! So, you know, that would be great. But that’s never the case [laughter]. It’s all traveling.
MC: Totally. Okay. So my next question is, your music credit discography is truly encyclopedic, and seems to cover just about every musical genre out there. Is there a particular genre of music you most enjoy playing?
FT: You know, I guess it’s rock and roll — what Little Feat does, Little Feat music, that’s, you know, that’s my favorite thing. In the studio, you’re playing pretty much pop music. And you do advertisement jingles and you do movie soundtracks and TV show soundtracks. And that’s pretty much what you do as a session player. And it’s different every day. You never know when you walk in what it’s going to be. I mean, you know it’s the TV show, you know it’s a movie or you know it’s a recording artist, whereas with Little Feat we know what we’re going to do every day. But my favorite music is Little Feat music. I’ve been doing it probably 38 years now, something like that. Maybe more, lost count [laughter].
MC: How would you describe the genre of Little Feat and how does it intersect with the other works you’ve been on?
FT: Well, you know, most of the time, I would just describe Little Feat music as American. We play a combination of jazz, country, folk music and rock and roll and, you know, some of the songs are more jazzier than other songs like “Day or Night” or “Day at the Dog Races” and stuff like that, a very jazzy fusion of songs. And then there’s, you know, straight rockers like “Teenage Nervous Breakdown” [laughter] and stuff. So, you know, we cover all the different kinds of genres of American music. We don’t play any kind of Led Zeppelin songs or Beatles songs [laughter].
MC: Totally. That’s great. So how would you say that your experience as a studio musician contributes to the overall success, dynamic and progression of Little Feat?
FT: Well, just, it gave me a lot of experience. And I mean, you know, really not that much of a correlation between the two. I was just lucky. The good thing about the studio, though, was that I got to work a lot with Bill Payne, who’s the basic leader of Little Feat. So through him, we got to be good friends and that’s why Lowell George was a real good friend of mine. And he was a neighbor where I live in Topanga Canyon. And so when they decided to put Little Feat back together, Billy and I were on tour with Bob Seger, doing the “American Storm” record tour. And, you know, he said “We’re putting Little Feat together, do you want to join the band?” And I was like, “Yes, sign me up!” [laughter]. But, you know, the work I did in the studio, aside from being able to develop a friendship with Bill Payne, was not that close. What you do in a studio is not anywhere near as cool as what we do in Little Feat. I always joke and say, “You make a mistake in the studio, they fire you, but if you make a mistake in Little Feat, people laugh at you” [laughter].
MC: That’s a good outlook to have [laughter]. So, my next question, I guess you kind of have answered, but considering you have extensive experience with both, if you had to choose, would you say you’re most in your “musical element” when you’re recording in the studio or you’re performing live?
FT: Well, performing live. But, you know, we just finished a record for Sam Clayton, who’s a conga player in our band — a blues record featuring him singing all the songs. And we’re, you know, we’re very, very proficient in the studio. It’s very efficient. We get it done real quick. And that’s from playing together for so long that when we go into the studio, we don’t really have to think about it that much. Nobody is that nervous or anything. And so it doesn’t take us a long time to play in the studio. Like, a lot of times when you go in and a band is totally different — you walk in and you don’t know who the bass player is or who the drummer’s gonna be, but in Little Feat, it’s always the same guys. And, you know, everybody has a lot of experience playing in the studio. So it’s really easy and we’re very quick in the studios.
MC: Yeah, that’s great. Considering how much the recording production and distribution of music has evolved over the decades, which platforms do you most use to listen to music these days?
FT: Mostly these days, I’m going through Amazon Music or Spotify, you know, pretty much. Amazon Music has everything in the world, that’s pretty much the way of doing it. It’s not really great for the artists. We don’t get paid very well for it [laughter]. Or don’t get paid at all, hardly [laughter]. But it’s the most efficient; you can find anything. You just have to press the button and say, “Hey, play me Otis Redding.” You don’t have to go searching through your library or anything looking for something. It’s very convenient, I just wish they would pay us [laughter].
MC: Oh, my gosh. Yeah, I do too, for your sake. Do you feel like being able to use Amazon Music where all of these songs are so readily available has broadened your musical horizons, or do you feel like you love it more to just listen to the songs that you’ve grown up loving?
FT: No, it’s great. I mean, you can go down a — especially through something like YouTube or Amazon Music — you can go down a rabbit hole, you know, and start to listen to one thing, and it leads you with suggestions to some other thing. And then pretty soon, you know, you get all kinds of stuff you didn’t even know existed. That’s a good thing about that.
MC: Yeah, that’s true. Do you have a go to artist who you find yourself falling down the rabbit hole for? [laughter].
FT: Oh, not particularly. You know, I’m always a big Ray Charles fan. Grew up being a big Ray Charles fan. I’m a big Miles Davis fan. Since I’m a trumpet player, I pretty much know everything he ever did [laughter], so, you know. Yeah. It’s usually kind of a surprise. And we have a couple of new guys in our band — Scott Sharrard, our fabulous guitarist and singer and Tony Leone, the fabulous drummer. And they are amazing students in music. They will tell you, like, what people had for lunch on the recording sessions. So they’re a great reference for, you know, like, say, “Hey, I want to listen to a Dexter Gordon record,” and they’ll go, “Oh, do you know of his record ___?” You know, they’ll find you some obscure record to listen to. So those guys are just a fountain of information. They just know everything that was ever recorded, pretty much.
MC: That’s awesome. So this one cracks me up. I just thought it was hilarious that in a 1975 Rolling Stone interview, Jimmy Page not only said that Little Feat was his favorite American band, but also that Robert Plant joked that they got yelled at for playing your music too loud in a Los Angeles hotel [laughter]. Who would you say is your favorite American band, or any band, frankly?
FT: [Laughter] Who my favorite American band is?
MC: Yeah, maybe besides Little Feat, of course.
FT: Besides Little Feat! My gosh, [thinking] I don’t know. I never listen to anybody but Little Feat [laughter]. No, you know, I don’t particularly have any American band that I can really think of that’s right off the top of my head. I think New Orleans music is probably my favorite music. So I’d have to say something like, you know, the Neville Brothers who don’t exist anymore [laughter]. None of our favorite bands exist anymore. We’re the only ones hanging out; we’ve outlived everybody! [laughter].
MC: So kind of segueing off of that, what would you say has been the most surreal opportunity so far in your life as a musician?
FT: Let me think about that for a second. I remember playing in Albert Hall for a command performance for Princess Margaret, with Glen Campbell with the Scottish Black Watch Pipers [laughter]. That was pretty surreal because we were in, you know, Albert Hall. It was a special, special occasion. So, and that was very odd [laughter] with princesses and bagpipers all over the place, so I guess that was a pretty surreal gig. I played with Bob Dylan when he was playing his Christian music all the time, and all of those shows were surreal. My favorite [person] was a guy who was sitting in the front row of the concert and he had a sign that said, “Jesus loves your old songs.” I thought that was perfect [laughter], you know.
MC: [Laughter] That’s hilarious.
FT: That was kind of surreal as well. You know, working with Bob was always surreal.
MC: That’s awesome. Yeah, he’s coming to Boston soon, and I’m like, I might need to get myself to invest. I think that would be a truly incredible concert to see.
FT: Oh, yeah. Yeah. You know, you can’t go wrong with Bob Dylan.
MC: So I know you just answered it as your life as a musician, but what would you say in the grand scheme of things in your life has been one of the most surreal opportunities you’ve experienced?
FT: Oh, I think it was when I was playing with the group the High Brows in Honolulu and Jimmy Webb, the songwriter who wrote “Up, Up and Away” and “MacArthur Park,” had just gotten his first royalty. He was a starting songwriter and just got his first bunch of money and he came to Hawaii for the first time. He came into my bar and he said, “What was the song you just played?” I said, “Ode to Billie Joe.” And this guy runs back out of the [club] again. And I went, “That’s weird.” And so after the set, he came back in and said, “Hey, when you’re all finished for the night, I want to talk to you about something. I’m at the hotel across the street.” And I got over there and knocked on the door and he opened the door and said, “Hi, I’m Jimmy Webb. Everybody in the band has been talking about you for days, man!” And I couldn’t believe this guy showed up. We were saying, “Who is this guy that wrote these songs?” I mean “Up, Up and Away” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” are two totally separately different types of songs and this same guy wrote them and everybody was going, “Who is this Jimmy Webb guy?” And he shows up in my nightclub and says, “Come to Los Angeles; join this band I put together!” And I went, “Okay!” [laughter], and that was the start of, you know, he introduced me to Glen Campbell and Glen Campbell got me working in studios. I met Lowell George there playing the sitar in his living room, way before Little Feat, when Lowell was studying sitar at Ravi Shankar school and my wife lived next door to him and she brought Lowell over to the house to play sitar. And that’s how we met Lowell and became good friends with him. So, yeah, meeting Jimmy was, you know, the best, most important and [laughter] also the most surreal thing that’s ever happened to me.
MC: Okay, so that was my last question, frankly! I just wanted to turn it over to you and ask if there’s anything else you want to chat about before we wrap things up.
FT: Well, just hope, you know, we can have lots of folks, friends and fans come down to the Wilbur Theater on October th or th, and rock out with us! It’s going to be a lot of fun.
MC: Thank you so much again, Mr. Tackett, for taking the time to speak with me.
FT: Thank you very much.
MC: And good luck with night two of “Dixie Chicken” tonight in Nashville. And I cannot wait to see you guys in Boston in a few weeks.
FT: Well, thanks. We’re going to have a great time and we’ll see you in Boston.
MC: Perfect. See you then. Thank you so much. Have a great rest of your day.
FT: You too. Bye bye!
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.